Miriam's Garden: When life gives you tomatoes, savor and share them

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In my garden, the tomatoes have been slow to ripen in this most-curious season. A lot of the fault is mine: They went in very late, I planted late-maturing types, and I started them by seed (late). Also, I left town when tomato-planting time came around.

Once they were in, for a long time, it neglected to rain. It was so hot and dry the tomatoes fainted during the day, drooped and sagged. Throughout the drought, David, my husband, faithfully kept them watered.

During a long August stay in New York City, I frequently walked about the Union Square Greenmarket, swooning over other growers' tomatoes. Sometimes I'd buy some, and often I'd just feel envious, but it was curious that no tomatoes tasted as good as the tomatoes of my own garden memories. When I came home after three weeks away, there were great, big, beautiful plants. But the tomatoes were all green.

I like a green tomato maybe more than your average person. I do all sorts of things with green tomatoes -- I slice them for bread-and-butter pickles, simmer them into a rich lemony soup, dredge them in flour or cornmeal and fry them in bacon fat or olive oil. I even grill them.

But generally, I do these things with the last of the tomatoes, as frost threatens or when we've tired of fresh salads and I've made all the sauce my freezer will hold.

Now, when there still is the promise (what gardening is all about) that they will ripen and pink up and redden and become juicy and succulent -- I hate to interrupt all that by yanking them still green off the vines.

When I began writing this, I was not in my garden, not even close, but in an airport at the other edge of the state. Happy on that day -- Saturday, Aug. 25, our 16th wedding anniversary -- that I was going home after too many days away, to my husband and our cats and our lonely elkhound, and a garden full of tomatoes. Many of which were finally ripening.

The day before, in a suburb outside of my hometown of Detroit, at the family home of Linda, my lifelong friend, I fried some green tomatoes to go with bacon and scrambled eggs. I was there for a quick and sad visit. Linda's father lay in a hospital bed set in the airy, light-filled dining room, where our two families used to share noisy and memorable meals so many years ago. His illness had turned aggressive and friends and family were trooping in to say their goodbyes, while it was still possible. While he could still hear, and could still speak to us, because deep thinking and talking was what he loved to do.

He told me that he'd had a wonderful life and was only sad for those he was leaving behind. He gave me a recipe for a quick tomato soup (a can of tomato juice and an equal amount of orange juice). He expressed dismay that his vegetable garden wasn't up to par this year.

There's never much you can do when there is grief and sadness in a house, except to sit and listen. Or to stay close but not intrude. And sometimes, if you are lucky, you get to feed someone. Which is why when my friend's mother finally agreed to well-done scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon and chives, I got to work.

From their garden, I picked chives and a couple of green tomatoes. On the ledges of the raised beds, critters had scattered half-chewed tomatoes.

I cooked the tomatoes simply, thin-sliced, with a little salt and pepper in the fat left from frying the bacon. The caregiver, working a long shift, said she hadn't had fried green tomatoes in such a long time. My friend's mother ate three helpings of eggs, and about half of the bacon, the first thing she'd been able to eat all day.

The leftover eggs -- because I'd cooked every egg in the house -- were scraped into a dish, a feast for the outside animals. The same groundhogs who were sampling tomatoes.

After my husband picked me up at the airport on our anniversary day, we went out to a restaurant and waited too long for a not great meal.

But today, the day after our anniversary, we are home, with my garden and in the kitchen. David has helped me knead bread as the cupboard was empty. There's another big loaf yet to go in the oven. The day is hot so he's watering the tomatoes once more. As soon as the last batch of bread is baked, I'll make a squash casserole for dinner. With a tomato and red onion salad. Enough to share with friends and maybe a few creatures. To celebrate life.

Sander J. Breiner, MD., died at home, surrounded by family, on Aug. 28. He was 87.

Yellow Squash Casserole

PG tested

  • 4 to 5 small yellow summer squash (1 1/4 pounds), sliced 1/4-inch thick (4 cups)
  • 2 cups halved and thinly sliced sweet onion
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup shredded white cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup shredded provolone cheese
  • 2 tablespoons grated parmesan
For the topping
  • 1/2 cup panko crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9- or 10-inch glass baking dish or shallow casserole.

Layer half the squash and half the onion in casserole. Mix thyme, salt and pepper in cup. Sprinkle half over vegetables. Mix cheeses; sprinkle half over squash and onions. Repeat layers, ending with cheese.

For topping: In small bowl, mix panko crumbs, chives or parsley, olive oil and garlic with fingertips. Sprinkle over vegetables.

Bake, uncovered, 45 to 50 minutes, until squash is tender and begins to get juicy, and top is browned and crisp. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 2 or 3 main-dish or 4 side-dish servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

Tomato, Red Onion and Basil Salad

PG tested

I made this with a medium-sized 'Cherokee Purple' and a 'Pruden's Purple' tomato. I added a couple round 'Yellow Perfection' tomatoes, but you could use another small tart tomato, such as 'Green Zebra.'

  • 2 ripe medium tomatoes, about 8 ounces each (or one very large tomato), halved through core, core cut out, sliced into thin wedges
  • 2 small yellow or green-when-ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons thinly sliced red onion
  • Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
  • 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 to 3 large basil leaves, thinly sliced, plus a sprig for garnish

In a shallow platter with sides or flat bowl, arrange big tomatoes. Add small tomatoes, sprinkle with red onion and season to taste with salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil and vinegar, adding the smaller amount of vinegar first. Let stand 10 minutes, then toss lightly and taste, seeing if you need more vinegar, or salt or pepper. Sprinkle with sliced basil and add a sprig for garnish. Serve.

Makes 2 or 3 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

food - recipes

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com.


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